Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the pandemic themed HBO Max movie Locked Down in which writer John Jurgensen posed the question: does anyone want to see on screen what they experience every day? After all, as Jurgensen points out, Covid-19 themed productions such as the TV Show Connecting…and the movie Songbird both flopped with audiences and critics alike.
“Man, I can’t wait to watch all these movies being made about the pandemic – said no one ever!” my friend Natasha recently texted me. “Maybe a movie about dogs in the pandemic would be more interesting.”
Both the conversation with my friend and Jurgensen’s article got me thinking about all those movies made during another crisis: namely the Pre-Code films created during the early years of the Great Depression.
But weren’t Depression-era movies all about glitzy escapism, you may ask and you’d be partly right: the most enduring films of the 1930s are the flashy musicals, the screwball comedies and the Universal monster flicks. However a closer look at these films reveal more grit than glitter: after all, remember that it was a stolen apple that led the impoverished waif Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island in King Kong (1933), arguably the most famous of all Pre-Code movies.
August 31st will mark 124 years since the first “moving picture” was shown in Toronto. This fateful event took place at Robertson’s Musee, a venue located at the corner of Yonge and Adelaide Street East. Robertson’s Musee sounds like it was a pretty lively place: a circus, wax museum, zoo and curio shop all-in-one. The moving pictures, a brand new attraction, were projected by a Vitascope.
I learned this fact from reading Doug Taylor’s fascinating book Toronto Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen (The History Press, 2014). Full of interesting tidbits – did you know that the Cineplex Odeon Eaton Centre was the first movie theatre to offer buttered popcorn? – and gorgeous b&w photos of Toronto’s long forgotten movie palaces, Taylor’s book is a must for any Toronto film buff. Also enjoyable are Taylor’s own recollections of his movie-going experiences as a child and a teenager in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Reading Taylor’s book in 2020 is a rather bittersweet experience. When Toronto Theatres was published in 2014, many of Toronto’s movie houses were already nothing more than a memory, due in part to Netflix and other streaming and downloading services . Today, the few theatres that have survived are, thanks to Covid-19, in grave danger of becoming extinct.
Taylor’s book has brought back movie-going memories of my own. The first film that I ever saw in a theatre was Gremlins (1984) at the Cineplex Eaton Centre. My sister had been so frightened by the scene where Spike (the leader of the Gremlins) leaps out of a Christmas tree that she jumped sky high out of her seat. “That’s it!” my exasperated father exclaimed. “We’re going home!”
I feigned annoyance at my sister for causing me to miss the rest of the movie but the truth was that I was petrified of the “little green monsters” too. For at least the next five years, I would sleep with the covers pulled tightly over my head so that the gremlins couldn’t get me.
Another cherished movie memory was seeing Jurassic Park at the Sherway Cineplex in 1993. If you were born after 1995, you probably won’t understand but at the time movie-goers had seen nothing like this: we were watching actual dinosaurs! Well, it felt like it anyway. I remember gaping at the screen, mouth open, in wonderment. It was magical and it was an experience that I shared with my best friend and a room full of popcorn munching strangers. Magical. Experience. You won’t get that sitting on your couch streaming Neflix.
It breaks my heart to think that future generations may miss out on this rite of passage. If you are concerned about the future of Toronto’s movie theatres, please visit Save Your Cinema.ca